What is sloppy science, American researcher Lauren Maggio asks the listeners in the Co Greep Zaal, a hall at Universiteitssingel 60. “Plagiarism,” someone calls out. “Poor data analyses,” “manipulating data”. They all fit into the list of irresponsible and unethical behaviour that you are not allowed to take part in as a researcher.
But there is also a grey area. Matters that may not be allowed, but unconsciously creep in and eventually are “more damaging to science and its public reputation than obvious fraud. Ultimately, questionable research practices can waste resources, provide an unfair advantage to some researchers over others, damage the scientific record, and provide a poor example for other researchers, especially trainees,” Lauren Maggio, Anthony Artino (Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda) and Erik Driessen write in their studies Ethical Shades of Gray.
And why would that not happen in their own field, Health Professions Education? To test these so-called questionable research practices, they sent a survey to 1,840 researchers across the world (who had been filtered from twenty journals). More than a quarter responded. In addition, there were reactions via Twitter, where the survey had been announced as well.
The result: 90 per cent of the 590 participants – average age of 46 and mainly employed at a university in the United States, Europe and Canada – have, at least once, been guilty of sloppy science. “We were flabbergasted by the number,” says Maggio. Driessen: “It is unbelievable that so many scientists admit that they behaved irresponsibly.”
The top ten included: adding one or more authors to a paper who did not qualify for authorship (honorary authorship), inappropriately storing sensitive research data, citing articles that you have not read, selectively citing certain papers just to please editors or reviewers, ignoring a colleague’s questionable interpretation of data, and salami slicing (spread study results over more papers than is appropriate).
Serious infringements were also noted. No fewer than 31 researchers (5.5 per cent) were guilty of plagiarism. Another issue was changing results under pressure (from a research advisor or collaborator), reported by thirty people. Twenty reported deleting data before performing analysis without disclosure and 14 confessed they fabricated data.
Maggio: “According to one respondent, occasional sloppy science seems to have become the standard. It all has to do with the pressure to publish and to acquire subsidies.”
In Asia, salaries are related to the number of publications, says Driessen, who recently received an e-mail with the invitation to become a ghost author. “If I could write a paper using their data. The names of the authors would then be pasted into the heading. A lot of money is offered for this kind of practice.”
The discussion is, among other things, about whether there is such a grey area. “You are aware that it is not allowed?” was one reaction. Someone else: “I don't agree with that. The rules are fluid.” Driessen: “Especially the older respondents feel that a lot has changed. In the past, more was allowed.”
Would a checklist containing the most important points of attention prevent worse from happening, someone asks. “Maggio: “In the case of authorship, for some journals you have to write after every name what his or her contribution to the study was.”
A listener in a white doctor's coat: “A checklist won't change anything. The culture has to change. And that starts with the juniors.” She receives support. “It is especially the seniors who are prepared to turn a blind eye, allow themselves much more, and for that reason are not always the best role models.” “So, there is attention for the juniors while the seniors can just do as they please. That won't work,” a young researcher says. Her colleague: “I agree. Your boss does it, why shouldn't you? It’s a strong socialized practice."